Babies. Peek-a-boo! Playing is how babies absorb the new world around them and see what they can do with their bodies to make something happen. And few things fascinate them quite like you. "Baby's favorite plaything is the parent," Engel-Smothers says. "This attachment is absolutely vital for any other milestones to be reached."
Now is the time to encourage a love of reading; it provides the building blocks for visual, speech, and language development. Cuddle up with books containing large, colorful pictures and have fun by getting into character. Simple activities such as shaking a rattle or filling a bucket with blocks teach cause and effect and concepts like "in and out," respectively, while improving motor skills.
Play is a pleasant form of work for babies. "They are motivated to work hard to solve problems," says Linda Acredolo, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and co-author of Baby Minds: Brain-Building Games Your Baby Will Love. "They like to figure things out."
Toddlers. When he pushes rubber ducky under bath water to watch it pop back up and throws snacks from his high chair to see them fall, your tot is learning how objects around him work and function. "They learn from each of these experiments," Acredolo says. Stacking rings, small puzzles, and pop-up toys encourage problem solving at this age. "They enjoy the sense of accomplishment," she continues.
Once they've mastered manipulative play--anything that uses hands, muscles, and eyes--toddlers incorporate pretend play, using their vivid imaginations to understand symbols. For instance, a doll symbolizes a baby and a toy truck symbolizes a real truck. Join in to promote language development. "When parents play pretend with children, they are supporting the child with words," Acredolo says.
Preschoolers. At this stage, your role-playing child and her peers are setting up a visit at the doctor's office as they take the language and motor skills they've already learned to the next level. "Preschool play facilitates social relationships and growth," Engel-Smothers says.
Imaginative play promotes planning, problem solving, and compromise as they figure out, for instance, who plays the doctor, nurse, and patient. Plus, "parents can foster more abstract play," Acredolo says. For example, encourage your preschooler to pretend a block of wood is a car.